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Off-Season Game Plan: Montreal Canadiens

Scott Cullen
5/2/2012 5:42:38 PM
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The Montreal Canadiens finished with their fewest points since 2002-2003 and have started the rebuilding process, starting in the front office, where they hired Marc Bergevin to be their new General Manager.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the issues facing Bergevin as he tries to return the Habs to respectability.

The first issue facing Bergevin is who to hire as his new head coach. Randy Cunneyworth held the interim tag after taking over from Jacques Martin, but Bergevin has returned Cunneyworth to an assistant's role. All indications are that the Canadiens want a Francophone coach, which is understandable given the nature of dealing with the media, but if the best candidate is not Francophone, that priority could pose problems.

But, Bergevin isn't going to be caught by surprise here. He knew what he was getting into with this job and must have some ideas about who he is going to bring in to coach.

When it comes to personnel, Bergevin is going to be able to build around a young core that consists of goaltender Carey Price, defenceman P.K. Subban and left winger Max Pacioretty -- the first two being restricted free agents that will be in line for long-term contracts this summer.

Then, of course, there is the third overall draft pick that should give Montreal another cornerstone player around which to set their foundation. Scoring forwards like Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko and Alex Galchenyuk would upgrade Montreal's skill immediately and since the Habs don't often pick so high in the draft, this is an opportunity for them to take advantage and secure a high-end talent.

With a few young pieces and some solid veterans, including Erik Cole, Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges, the Canadiens aren't starting from scratch, but they have a lot of work to do with the supporting cast. A lot of young players got opportunities to play last season and while that is valuable experience, it won't mean much if those players don't improve with another year under their belts. How Bergevin fills out the roster, with a mix of veterans and prospects on the third and fourth lines, could have an immediate impact on how this team fares next season.

Finally, Bergevin's financial flexibility to make moves to improve the Canadiens' roster is somewhat limited by the bad contracts he's inherited. Scott Gomez stands out as one of the worst in the league, but Tomas Kaberle and Rene Bourque aren't producing relative to their pay grade either, so Bergevin's ability to add to the roster will be affected by any measures he can take to escape from these cap obligations.

Taking all of the challenges into consideration, Bergevin still moves into a good situation as a first-time GM. While the high-profile job bring with it a lot of scrutiny, getting into the Habs' front office now is the equivalent of buying low on a stock. If Bergevin turns it around, he'll be lauded and the rewards will be great.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

 

GM/COACH
Marc Bergevin/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Max Pacioretty 77.25 79 33 32 65 +2 $1.625M
Erik Cole 75.45 82 35 26 61 +11 $4.5M
David Desharnais 69.55 81 16 44 60 +10 $850K
Tomas Plekanec 68.63 81 17 35 52 -15 $5.0M
Brian Gionta 65.53 31 8 7 15 -7 $5.0M
Rene Bourque 61.40 76 18 6 24 -19 $3.333M
Louis LeBlanc 59.71 42 5 5 10 +3 $1.17M
Scott Gomez 57.01 38 2 9 11 -9 $7.357M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Lars Eller 62.79 79 16 12 28 -5 RFA $1.271M
Travis Moen 61.50 48 9 7 16 -3 UFA $1.5M
Mathieu Darche 58.09 61 5 7 12 -4 UFA $700K
Blake Geoffrion 55.44 35 2 3 5 0 RFA $1.063M
Michael Blunden 55.40 39 2 2 4 -1 RFA $615K
Aaron Palushaj 54.88 38 1 4 5 +1 RFA $883K
Ryan White 54.43 20 0 3 3 -7 RFA $625K
Petteri Nokelainen 53.63 56 3 4 7 -6 RFA $550K
Brad Staubitz 51.35 62 1 0 1 -5 UFA $575K

If there is a feel-good story for the Habs, coming out of a disappointing season, it is that Max Pacioretty was healthy, fully recovered from the injuries suffered when hit by Boston's Zdeno Chara in March, 2011, and not only was Pacioretty healthy, but he played at a high level, leading the Canadiens with 65 points and ranking tenth in the league with 3.6 shots on goal per game. That offensive emergence makes the 23-year-old winger a building block piece for the franchise.

Pacioretty's power forward tag-team partner, Erik Cole, was a tremendous signing last summer. Cole scored a career-high 35 goals (27 in the last 54 games) and tied a career-high with 61 points. While the Canadiens should be looking to improving their young players, there's nothing wrong with having a 33-year-old who can produce like Cole.

Pacioretty and Cole formed an effective line with diminutive centre David Desharnais, who plays the distributor to wingers that can get to the net. Desharnais led the Canadiens with 20 power play points and was a decent two-way player, but doesn't have ideal size for a workhorse number one pivot. That won't change, so it helps to have him paired with powerful wingers like Pacioretty and Cole.

With the emergence of the Desharnais line, injury to Brian Gionta and trade of Mike Cammalleri, that left Tomas Plekanec looking for more support. Plekanec is a strong two-way player who can handle tough defensive assignments, but is also capable of putting up some offensive numbers (at least 50 points in four of the last five seasons) when he has capable wingers. One of the primary objectives for the Canadiens this summer ought to be finding a suitable complementary winger for Plekanec.

A torn biceps cut team captain Brian Gionta's season short right as he was in the midst of a nasty slump (two points, minus-11 in 11 games) that left him with subpar numbers in the 31 games in which he appeared. However, prior to last season, Gionta had scored 20 or more goals in seven straight seasons and he's trustworthy enough to play in any situation, so a healthy season from Gionta in 2012-2013 ought to improve the Canadiens' fortunes.

When the Canadiens decided to trade Mike Cammalleri, they obviously wanted to get bigger up front and Rene Bourque certainly is bigger than Cammalleri, but Bourque's lack of production was crippling. He played more than 18 minutes per game for Montreal and managed five goals in 38 games. In 76 games last season, between Calgary and Montreal, he put up three even-strength assists. No one's expecting Bourque to be an offensive creator, but if he gets involved at all he should have more even-strength assists even by accident.

If last season might serve as an eye-opener for Bourque, then maybe Montreal can get a bounceback campaign from the three-time 20-goal scorer who had back-to-back 50-point seasons before dropping to 24 points last season. If not, the Habs had better hope that he can earn his keep in a checking role because he still has four years left on his contract.

Underneath the hype that comes with being a Francophone drafted in the first round by the Canadiens, Louis Leblanc fared well in half a season's worth of NHL action. Leblanc may not be a huge scorer, but has enough speed to create chances and contribute in a regular role as a 21-year-old, with some upside still to be explored.

There may not be a more disappointing player in the league than Scott Gomez. Of course, much of that disappointment stems from the massive contract that is attached to his lack of production. In an injury-plagued season, Gomez played protected minutes (high offensive zone starts, weak relative level of competition, per www.behindthenet.ca) and while he did fare well in territorial play (one of five Habs forwards with a positive shot differential), it's difficult, if not impossible, to justify a season in which he finished with two goals and 11 points in 38 games.

Gomez has two more years remaining on his deal, with a cap hit (approx. $14.7M over two years) higher than than the actual cash outlay ($10.0M) required, but his level of play still makes it hard to imagine another team willing to take his deal. Until a new collective bargaining agreement is finalized, however, it's hard to predict how the Canadiens might try to get out from under this albatross contract, but if he can be buried in the AHL, that would be the most cap-friendly way to handle the situation.

Lars Eller made nice progress in his second NHL season and is turning into a reliable two-way centre. He still has more offensive potential that can develop in the coming seasons, but he's already a reliable contributor with size and skill.

Last season brought a lot of opportunities for young forwards to audition for roles on the club and many remain on the fringes. They could stick in third or fourth line roles or, just as easily, they could be back in the AHL.

Blake Geoffrion came over in trade from Nashville and performed well in the AHL, scoring 12 points in nine games with Hamilton after the trade. While he managed a couple of goals in 13 games for the Canadiens, Geoffrion has work to do in order to round out his game so that he can still in the NHL on a full-time basis.

Big winger Michael Blunden has tallied eight points in 90 career NHL games, and while he does make the Canadiens bigger, his limited contributions make it tough for him to earn regular NHL employment.

Even though Aaron Palushaj managed just one goal in 38 games of limited playing time with the Canadiens last season, he showed some promise as a two-way winger, finishing with the best shot differential among players to play in at least 30 games. He might be able to secure a spot right out of the gate next season, or maybe not, but he'll be in contention for a job.

24-year-old winger Ryan White is fighting for a job in the NHL and took that to heart when he finally made his season debut in mid-February following hernia surgery, scrapping seven times in 20 games (per www.hockeyfights.com), yet playing more than 14 minutes per game. White has the kind of energy that fits in a fourth-line role, but he may have to pick his spots better if he's going to have any hope of staying healthy enough to have a careerin that role.

Petteri Nokelainen has played 245 NHL games and is capable enough as a fourth-line checker, but also easily replaced.

A couple of unrestricted free agent forwards, Travis Moen and Brad Staubitz, brought size and toughness to the Habs, so if both are allowed to depart, Montreal may need to seek out replacements. Rangers winger Brandon Prust, who will also be a free agent, might be an upgrade, as a tough guy who can also play a regular checking role.

Looking at more impactful free agent additions, the Canadiens could use a second-line winger to join Plekanec and a third-line winger to play with Eller. Perhaps a couple of PA Parenteau, David Jones, Adam Burish, Torrey Mitchell or David Moss would be reasonable options to fill some holes with more experienced wingers.

Additionally, with the Canadiens selecting third in the draft, there could be an opportunity to add a top offensive talent. It might take some top-of-the-draft shenanigans for Nail Yakupov to slip to three, but Mikhail Grigorenko might be available and has long-term potential that would be hard to ignore.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Josh Gorges 66.95 82 2 14 16 +14 $3.9M
Tomas Kaberle 66.62 72 3 28 31 -19 $4.25M
Yannick Weber 65.00 60 4 14 18 -7 $850K
Andrei Markov 55.04 13 0 3 3 -4 $5.75M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
P.K. Subban 71.63 81 7 29 36 +9 RFA $875K
Raphael Diaz 65.08 59 3 13 16 -7 RFA $900K
Chris Campoli 64.47 43 2 9 11 -8 UFA $1.75M
Alexei Emelin 61.18 67 3 4 7 -18 RFA $984K

Healthy again, Josh Gorges was his usual stabilizing presence in the defensive zone, leading the league with 250 blocked shots, 51 more than runner-up Brett Clark of Tampa Bay. Gorges also led the Canadiens in plus-minus despite playing the hardest minutes on the blueline, facing a steady diet of defensive zone starts and tough opposition.

The acquisition of Tomas Kaberle from Carolina last season was beyond ill-advised. His game has declined to be sure, so taking on two more years of that contract is far from ideal. That said, Kaberle scored 16 of his 31 points last season on the power play, so there could be a role for him to provide some value. Of course, if Andrei Markov is healthy and P.K. Subban is on hand, the power play minutes start to dry up quickly.

Yannick Weber is a skilled defenceman who can skate, but hasn't established that he's reliable enough defensively to handle a prominent role. As such, he continues to get moved back and forth between defence and fourth-line forward. his long-term development would have to be enhanced with a consistent role.

The great wildcard on the Montreal defence is Andrei Markov, who finally returned to play 13 games at the end of the season. Markov was a brilliant defenceman in his prime and could be a difference-maker if he's healthy next year, but he's played 65 out of a possible 246 games over the last three seasons, so who can trust that the 33-year-old can be a top pair defenceman again?

Whether Markov plays or not, his heir apparent on the Montreal blueline is P.K. Subban. Subban isn't as smooth and composed as Markov; in fact, he's much rougher around the edges, but even if he has made his share of mistakes as he's learning the ropes in the NHL, Subban is so competitive and talented that he's going to be a top-pair defenceman for a long time.

Signed out of Switzerland, Raphael Diaz was certainly competent in his first NHL season. The 26-year-old doesn't have great offensive upside and isn't big enough to be a physical presence, so he relies on puck control and positioning to be effective.

The Canadiens' other rookie defenceman of note last season was Alexei Emelin, who showed promise in a physical defensive role but, for a 26-year-old, he's not quite the finished product that might have been expected. Emelin ranked second among all defencemen in hits per game, with 3.52 (236 hits in 67 games) and that element is needed on the Montreal blueline.

Given the uncertainty surrounding Markov, it would benefit the Canadiens to make sure that they have sufficient depth on defence. Adding an inexpensive veteran or two should be an objective, just to ensure that they aren't left holding the bag if Markov's knee continues to give him problems.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Peter Budaj 70.96 17 5 7 5 2.55 .913 $1.15M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Carey Price 73.72 65 26 28 11 2.43 .916 RFA $2.75M

While Peter Budaj hasn't had much success as a starting goaltender in the NHL, he's been pretty good when asked to take on a backup role. Even if his record wasn't great last season, that wasn't all on Budaj and his .913 save percentage was the second-best of his career and many teams would sign up for a backup posting a .913 save percentage.

Of course, Budaj doesn't have to take on a significant role because Carey Price is one of the game's top young goaltenders. If his end-of-season concussion doesn't present any long-term problems, the Canadiens will build around Price, whose .920 save percentage over the last two seasons ranks sixth in the league among goaltenders with at least 100 games played.

It's all well and good to have a top young goaltender, but the Canadiens need to provide adequate support for Price so that he's not burned out by trying to carry a mediocre team year-in and year-out.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Nathan Beaulieu D Saint John (QMJHL) 11-41-52, +41, 53 GP
Jarred Tinordi D London (OHL) 2-14-16, +39, 48 GP
Brendan Gallagher RW Vancouver (WHL) 41-36-77, +19, 54 GP
Danny Kristo RW North Dakota (WCHA) 19-26-45, +16, 42 GP
Michael Bournival C Shawinigan (QMJHL) 30-26-56, +15, 41 GP
Patrick Holland RW Tri-City (WHL) 25-84-109, +42, 72 GP
Andreas Engqvist C Hamilton (AHL) 20-23-43, even, 60 GP
Morgan Ellis D Shawinigan (QMJHL) 15-37-52, +18, 60 GP
Darren Dietz D Saskatoon (WHL) 15-29-44, +7, 72 GP
Steve Quailer RW Northeastern (HE) 8-17-25, +7, 26 GP

Last year's first-round pick, Nathan Beaulieu is an offensive defenceman who has good size and scored nearly a point-per-game for a powerhouse Saint John team. Some time in the AHL would be the prudent approach, but it will be interesting to see if he can force the Habs' hand by showing them he's ready.

Jarred Tinordi's first OHL season didn't go as planned, but he was much better in 2011-2012, re-establishing his place in the prospect pecking order. He's huge and should be a fixture on the Canadiens blueline for years. As he matures, he'll be groomed for a shutdown role.

A fifth-round pick in 2010, Brendan Gallagher impressed in last year's camp and while he's on the small side, he's put up three straight years with at least 40 goals in the WHL and has some feistiness to his game that should allow him to survive at the next level. Maybe he sneaks into a spot next season, but a more likely scenario is that he starts in the AHL, where he can get used to the pro game and score some before getting his chance with the Canadiens.

Drafted in the second round in 2008, Danny Kristo is returning to North Dakota for his senior season but, after scoring 45 points in 42 games as a junior, he remains an intriguing prospect.

Acquired from Colorado in the Ryan O'Byrne deal, Michael Bournival is a good skater with some offensive ability, but may not be a scorer in the NHL. Even so, with a couple of years to develop, he might be a reliable top nine forward.

Patrick Holland was added from Calgary in the Michael Cammalleri deal and while his goal-scoring didn't go up much in his third junior season, his assist total exploded as he skated alongside Brendan Shinnimin and Adam Hughesman on a very prolific line for Tri-City. That inflated point total may create unreasonable expectations for Holland, but his steady improvement throughout his career does make him worth watching over the next couple years.

While others ahead of him on the list are younger with more variance in their projection, 24-year-old Andreas Engqvist isn't far from the NHL now. He doesn't figure to be a scorer, but at 6-foot-4, can be an effective checking centre.

Morgan Ellis has developed quite a bit in four years of major junior hockey, so he's ready for his next test in the AHL. He's a safe defensive defenceman, with some offensive ability that has improved as he's matured.

A fifth-round pick last summer, Darren Dietz is a physical defenceman who can contribute some offensively. He may be hard-pressed to reach the NHL, but another year in the Western Hockey League may tell a better tale about where is future potential lies after junior.

A 6-foot-4 winger who scored nearly a point per game in Hockey East competition, Steve Quailer may still return to Northeastern for his senior season, but as a forward prospect with size, he bears watching.

DRAFT
3rd - Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Matthew Dumba.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Canadiens have approximately $45.3M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 14 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Canadiens roster on Cap Geek here.

Needs: One top six forward, one top nine forward, one top four defenceman.

What I said the Canadiens needed last year: Three top nine forwards.

They added: Erik Cole, Raphael Diaz, Alexei Emelin, Chris Campoli.

TRADE MARKET Scott Gomez, Rene Bourque, Tomas Kaberle, Yannick Weber.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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